The things that chase me
I used to work in retail a million years ago; and not just a little mom and pop store where people come and go, already knowing what they want, but big, busy, packed with customers, Christmas-shopping-nightmare, endless lines and demands and nasty glares, retail. I worked at the Gap for a while. People would come in and drag me around the store demanding info and opinions on “what their 12-year-old niece would like” or “what are all the teenagers wearing these days.? I was okay then….smiley, happy to help and very, very good at customer service (i.e. reading people and instantly assessing what sort of ‘service’ they would best respond to and providing it one the spot). I generally find that people who have never worked in that particular trade think it to be an easy, mindless job but it’s far from that. If you’re not good at it, you end up getting treated like a personal assistant who has never quite understood the duties expected in your job. If you are good at it, you are endlessly in demand and get run off your feet for exactly the same wages as the ones who don’t even bother to try.
Like I said, I was really good at it so I tended to be busy through my shifts and preferred being busy to wandering the store aimlessly, refolding things customers had messed up and rehanging the pile of things they had tried on in the fitting rooms. Selling was easy for me. I read people at a glance and knew how to approach them. I could tell if they were going to be annoyed if I asked them the standard:
“Hi there! Is there anything I can help you with today?”
We had a rule that you had to greet every customer the moment they entered the store (ten feet/ten seconds, I think, or maybe that was one of the other many companies I worked for over the years). I could usually tell if they were there to buya something for a loved one and actually wanted to make the purchase or if they were doing a secret santa thing or buying a gift for someone they felt the were obligated to buy for, out shopping becuase the had no other choice. That skill came in pretty handy, being nearly desperate to please, be accepted and liked by every single person I encountered. I was told I was an excellent sales person more times than I can count but really, I was just so fearful of failure and rejection I was treating every encounter as if my life, not my sales quota, depended on success. Anyway….the point is I had no trouble working in retail and was regularly one of the top sellers on any team I worked worth.
Christmas was a nightmare from December 1st until after the New Year every single year, no matter where I worked. There was always the argument over who was going to have to work Christmas Eve and Boxing Day (in Canada, our “black friday’ happens the day after Christmas and all the stores have ridiculously low deals to clear out their stock after the rush of sales from December). Every day was a long, exhausting process of greeting, assessing, running about the store offering products that might fit the customers’ needs, endless trips to the back room stock area to see if we had everything in a different size and then, if you happened to be good on cash (as I was) getting thrown up there with a line up of dozens of miserable, glaring customers waiting to dump their hard-earned money into my till as I plodded my way through the process of ringing them out. Some stores, like the lingerie store I worked for while I put myself through school, used security tags that had to be searched for and removed, go over the final sale policy very clearly (because somehow almost everyone thought they should be allowed to take panties home, wear them around a bit and then, if they didn’t fit quite right, they should be allowed to RETURN them and exchange for another pair. Seriously. The go-to come back for that from me was;
“It’s a sanitary issue. Would you be okay knowing that all the panties you’re buying right now might have been worn by someone else?”
It usually caused a shudder and a sudden light of understanding to flicker on in the customers’ eyes.
Once you had covered all the info, the store had us wrap the purchases in a lovely pale pink tissue paper, add some scented beads and box the item, even if it wasn’t a gift, which slid perfectly into our classy paper bags with ribbon handles. Yes, it was lovely and really made a difference to customers and yes, it was a great idea for the company to treat their customers that way, making it seem much more expensive and classy than our competetors, however, at Christmas time, when there was a consistent line of at least 20 people waiting to pay at each till, all that pampering made things a bit more complicated. It was interesting though, as you looked down the line you could see people’s expressions go from patient to bored to down right pissed off as they waited, silently counting the number of people ahead of them down as we cashiers madly hammered in purchases and discounts and packaged and folded and explained and thanked and smiled and checked our watches ten times a minute to see how close our next break was.
It was exhausting. No…wait. It was EXHAUSTING and every year I could not wait until the whole damn thing was over. Once it was, there was a zen like lull in the shopping centre, people just milling around, drinking coffee and fingering the fabrics of the items set out front of the store to entice them inside. I loved it….we all did. Those few days afterwards were pure bliss….until it started to get boring and suddenly your 6 hour shifts started feeling like they were 20 hours long. It was in those times I learned how to create a perfect table of panties, laid out by style, fabric, size, colour and price point. I also now know how to make a visually perfect stack of folded jeans. To this day, the clothing that sits in my family’s dresser drawers are little works of art; like perfectly folded origami animals, each corner sharp and even. The army would hire me to make their bunks and fold their uniforms in a snap if they ever knew….and there was such a job. lol.
I could talk forever about experiences in retail, including about being assaulted, proposed to, offered bribes and being robbed …. twice …. for the little bit of change we kept in the floats. But, this story is not about that….it’s about how much I’ve changed over these years.
Since Colt was born (12 years ago!) my life changed entirely. Becoming a mother to a disabled child who was so unhappy and screamed constantly (I’m not exaggerating, he would scream from the moment he woke until the moment he fell asleep for nearly two solid years. He would lose his little voice at points and let out the most heartbreaking scratchy silent wail of sheer misery…even while I fed him, bathed him, changed, him, rocked him…. If I tried to cuddle him it would cause panic in him and he would shove against my body with hands and feet with everything he had in him. He could not stand the sensory overload, I learned years later, but at that time I believed he hated me. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever felt….and I’m including being ejected from my foster family at 15, being raped, abused and everything else I went through in my early years. I had produced a beautiful little human being who was the most unhappy sould I’d ever med and he absolutely despised me. It was as if he already knew how difficult his life was going to be and knew that it was entirely my fault. He sensed instability and fought to keep himself as far from it as possible.
(I totally understand that was not even close to reality now….and got it by the time he was 2 or 3 but then, on my own with his dad working in another city, hours away, and no family to help me or even guide me, it wasn’t a far stretch).
Eventually, I learned to pick him up and hold him with one arm, as far from my body as I could, facing outward so he didn’t feel smothered, and I would walk the house in circles crying right along with him. We’d stop, eat through our tears, and then walk for another 3 hours, nonstop. It was this that triggered a lot of stuff from my past that I had been avoiding like mad, refusing to feel. Then PPD hit and everything went to shit….Dayne was so tired he ended up driving off the highway into a farmer’s field one night after a sleepless night and long day and very nearly lost his life….and then lost his job as we had no vehicle. Then my foster-mother, who was always on the fringes of my life at that point, flat-out rejected me and Colt, saying she couldn’t handle the screaming. I was now trying to support the three of us on 60% of my 20$/hour salary and I fell apart. All the mess of the past came crashing back in on me and it was too much to carry. Therapy, meds, psychiatric visits…..it all started then and it’s been a hell of a journey since. I finally started threapy, was diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress disorder and was depressed beyond words. The attachment disorder came to light while treating the ptsd from my entire childhood from birth to….well, pretty much to when Colt was born. Of all the things I carry with me, its that one that I struggle with them most. Anyway – that’s another story too.
Now that you have the summary….the reason for this post will make sense. Today, I am nearly paralyzed with fear when I have to go christmas shopping. I cannot tolerate Walmart (hate that place anyway) or a busy grocery store. If I force myself to go in (Dayne, Colt and I share that task and all go together each week as its good practice for Colt to stretch his coping wings) I end up highly anxious, on the verge of a panic attack at times, twitchy, hyper aware of EVERYTHING including smells, sounds, movement….I mean, I can pretty much tell you what every person in the isle I’m shopping in last ate from the smell of their breath. It makes me feel physically ill most times. Last year, a woman next to us in line to pay had recently eaten some kind of salami and when she turned to stack her groceries on the conveyor belt I caught a whiff of that mixed with rotten teeth and I have never been able to even think of eating salami since. I gag when I look at it. Needless to say, this experience makes me rather unbalanced and bitchy, which I’m sure is a ton of fun for poor Dayne who is only trying to do everything he can to support my emotional needs. It’s become so bad that even Colt has now takan to conforting me in busy stores. He’ll put his arm around me and whisper in my ear:
“Just take a deep breath mom. Close your eyes for a minute and think of being a home on your chair with a blanket to keep you warm. Imagine Jack (our cat) on your lap and pet his soft fur in your mind….” while gently rubbing my back or holding my had.
It makes me cry. That’s what I to do for him when he is overwhelmed. In the last year or so, it seems, he’s started to understand that he can do the same for others and he loves to give it back….to comfort. I explain to him how I feel in busy places quite honestly as I want to make sure he knows he isn’t the only one who feels overwhelmed sometimes, and here he is, not only understanding that message loud and clear, but also returning it to help the one who helped him. I freaking love this kid. Have I mentioned that lately? He is such a wonderful kid. He’s quickly turning out to be as loving, protective, and passionate as his dad.
Back to the retail experience – I remember, so clearly, coping with crowds and demanding shoppers and totally unexpected crises with ease. Once time a guy came into our store and flashed us….flashed us and then started jerking off, right there next to the silk pajamas. I didn’t flip out….panic…anything. I got a few moms with kids into the back change room area immediately, had one of the other staff keep an eye on him (must to her displeasure) and called security and the cops, both of whom showed up in minutes and arrested the dude who walked away in hand cuffs, still humping the air like a dog. I didn’t even think of that experience again for years. No nightmares, no flashbacks (which I used to have but, thankfully, no longer seem to). In contrast; In the present, the parking lot of the grocery store makes my heart pound if it’s more than a quarter full. Where I work now, I’ve witnessed many medical emergencies including heart attacks, strokes, choking, asthma attacks with little children absolutely blue in the face, no longer even bothering to struggle for air. I was at work the day one of our docs killed himself by jumping from the top floor of the parking garage I park in because he had been caught doing inappropriate things to patients while they were under anesthesia. Just a few months ago I found a man in cardiac crisis stumbling through the garage, desperately trying to find his way out to get to emerg and I was ultra-calm as I took control of the situation, assessed what I could, and guided him to help. Crisis, I do fine. Crowds…..not so much.
It’s in these moments, like yesterday when I bailed on Dayne and Colt in the middle of grocery shopping to go hide in the car, that I remember; although I’ve done a lot of work on my mental health, the parts that stay behind will probably always do so. It’s the stark comparison between when I felt I could appear normal to now that bothers me. (okay, “normal” is relative. I clearly remember smashing all the glasses in the kitchen I shared with a boyfriend who was rather….perverted in ways I was terrified of….raped me one night, insisting it was a fantasy of mine that just needed exploring. After smashing the glasses I lay down on top of them, naked and bleeding from his strange forced fantasy, and ground the glass into my skin, trying to replace the emotional agony I was feeling with physical pain I could easily cope with. He stood at the kitchen door smirking and watching with a psychopathic glint in his eyes.
“See Grainne? I told you to trust me…I knew you’d love it.”
His comment surprised me so much it snapped me from my dissociation and got up, showered, plucked as much glass from my flesh as I could, and carried on with life.
I was never “normal” but once upon a time I pretended to be. Now, I’m partially healed and I have faced a lot of demons…..faced them head on and shrunk them down to tiny paper models that dissolve in water or burn in fire and I can deal with life now. Well, better than before at least. I think that’s a win.
But wow, do I ever still hate Christmas shopping. Just so strange how some things seem to stick.
Tags: anxiety, ASD, autism, autistic child, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, CPTSD, expanding joy and love, growing, learning, neverending healing, post partum depression, pretending to be normal, PTSD, PTSD re, retail at christmas, shopping at christmas, struggles in life, support from my loved ones, therapy